‘Do it all again but work twice as hard!’, says young entrepreneur Chris Rundle

Exeter-based Chris Rundle is the 23-year-old managing director of GK Signs, a multi-million-pound company that designs, creates and installs signage for companies nationwide.

Chris bought the struggling GK Signs in 2011 for £10,000, aged just 16 at the time – a gamble, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the entrepreneurial youngster would point the firm in the right direction.

Today, the business produces vehicle livery for national fleets, signage, and hoardings for large building companies, and counts industry-leading names such as Hertz, Persimmon Homes and B&Q among its clients.

In November, Chris celebrated his success in style at the Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards gala final for Wales & South West, where he was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year. We caught up with our winner to learn more about his journey so far.

Huge congratulations on being named Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Wales & the South West. How does it feel to have won?

Well I was lost for words. I really, really didn’t expect to win; I was just enjoying the whole occasion and the honour of being a finalist. Suddenly I was on stage in the moment and to be honest, it was all a wonderful blur after my name was called.

I can’t remember what I said but I sincerely hope I thanked all my amazing team. I started GK Signs with one employee who’s still with me, but I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without my fantastic team. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t be doing the work of my 50 staff nor have all their expertise in their very different fields. So, to win, it’s amazing! 

What does winning this award mean to you and your team?

It means so very much to all of us. I know it was just me from the age of 13, buying GK Signs when I was 16 and a huge amount of hard graft and sacrifice. But the moment you expand and take on staff, it’s a team effort. I would not have won this award if I didn’t have a company that performed to such a high standard week in, week out, year on year.

We constantly aim to be competitive, efficient and excellent at our jobs. So, this award speaks volumes about every single person I employ. We are all celebrating this success as indeed we should. We’re in an extremely competitive industry where there can be good days, so-so days and some less successful days. Winning this award is a massive boost for everyone. It reminds us that we’re very good at what we do. And it’s even nicer when someone in business tells you so. Recognition amongst your peers is a priceless commodity, so yes, winning this award is more than special.

How do you feel the award will impact your business as we move further into 2019?

All awards, accolades and applause help any business on many levels. It’s reassuring for our customers to know we are an award-winning company; it provides us with valuable PR and social media opportunities and it tells a wider audience of potential new customers who we are and what we do. In other words, it gives us something specific to shout about.

It also impacts on our internal communications, giving us an opportunity to thank the staff in a tangible way and gives us an excuse to celebrate. Attending the awards ceremony introduced us to a room full of potential new clients as indeed to all the other award finalists who were similarly showcased. Networking and meeting the decision-makers is key to bringing in new business. It’s very easy to say how good we are, but it’s so much better when others say it for us. 

What makes your company unique?

GK Signs stands out for the quality of its products, fast turnaround and great customer service. Those strengths were my mantra from the start and always will be. Our customers are well-known brands that need top quality 100% of the time and that’s what we strive to deliver. Being a young company, we also innovate wherever we can to stay ahead of the competition and have recently brought out new products.

Did you always want to become an entrepreneur?

Yes. I bought a vinyl cutter from eBay when I was 13. I’d been fascinated by one at school and started making bike stickers which I sold on eBay too. It quickly overtook my paper round money (£5 per week) so I invested in more machinery to make printed banners. Soon I was making £250 per week – it was even better than the paper round and I didn’t have to get up at 5am every day.

That was the start of my business, then when I was 16, after three unimpressive GCSES passes, I used my money built up from working at home to buy an old-fashioned screen-printing company that made estate agents’ signs. I used my new technology approach to bring a better service to those customers. After riding around on my moped for 15,000km (I wasn’t old enough to drive) with my sign samples strapped to the side, my business took off.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

All sorts of people. I have been fortunate enough to meet some entrepreneurs in real life and hear their success stories. I also realised that many were like me – not necessarily academic but people with an idea, determination to succeed and the willingness to work hard to do it. Those people who thought I wouldn’t amount to much because of my poor academic performance made me more determined. So, my inspiration is a mix of the success of some, plus my own determination not to fail in the eyes of others.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

I started GK at 13 in my bedroom but by 16 I was operating a full-time business. I had a factory, customers and even accounts to prove it. But no one in the financial world could or would help me (except the tax man who didn’t hesitate to take my VAT and tax). I applied for grant funding but was told I was too young, similarly with bank finance. They said I could apply when I was 18 but I was told I wouldn’t get any funding because then I wouldn’t be a start-up business! All of this taught me that young determined people can achieve. 

What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?

I have had so many highlights. Meeting all kinds of people, seeing my ideas turn into reality and supporting myself financially from a young age. Creating employment for others has been a great high but perhaps the best part is that I have also had the money and skills to be able to help people who are more in need than myself; I have learned the true value of helping others wherever I can. I recently slept on the streets of Exeter to help raise money and highlight the plight of the city’s young homeless.

Do you have any role models in business?

Spencer McCarthy from Churchill Retirement Living. I approached Spencer about a site in Penzance after being desperate for more work five years ago. We now do all the site signage and hoarding for Churchill from Penzance to Cumbria. Spencer has provided me with a huge amount of support and I very much doubt I would be where I am today without his confidence in me to do well. There are others that I have met along the way and although I can’t name them all here I would like them to know how grateful I am.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think my style would be described as visionary and evolving. I have never been an employee nor worked in anyone else’s business. So, my style is based on my perception, experience and what I have been taught by my mentor. One thing I do believe in is “do as I do, not do as I say”. So, I can operate every machine in my company and I still go on site to fit signs when needed. I don’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.

I used to watch BBC’s The Apprentice but soon realised that you can’t just fire people on a whim with a pointed finger! It’s also very hard to command respect when you’re 18 and your colleagues are much more experienced and older. It challenges the normal order that people expect. So, sometimes I have perhaps been more directive than I would like to be but when customers are waiting, things need to happen or we don’t have a business.

I’ve taken a lot of advice, listened and learned, plus I know I still have a way to go. My hope is to remain a visionary leader but to mature my management style in the shorter term.

What makes a great business team?

Hiring the best people with a determined positive attitude. It is about surrounding yourself with the best talent who want to work hard and are prepared to put the effort in. Young companies need and thrive on energy and ideas with people who believe in themselves and the company. We now employ over 20 regional colleagues with 30 based in Exeter at head office, plus a new major site opening soon in Coventry. Listening and showing respect for the people around you is very important along with getting to know your colleagues well.

What piece of business advice would you give your younger self?

Do it all again but work twice as hard! After all, it worked the first time around so double the effort would mean faster development and quicker growth. I have enjoyed and still do enjoy every minute of it.